The yellow-brick road might, surprisingly,

take you to Hastings-on-Hudson, one-time home of good-witch actress Billie Burke and her husband Flo Ziegfeld. They repurposed a mansion in 1910 on a centrally located estate (calling it Burkeley Crest), and installed a menagerie that it is said included among other wonders, an elephant and some bears. At the age of 24, she wasn’t as famous yet as she would become with The Wizard of Oz, but she was already pretty famous.

The animals would regularly trundle from Burke’s estate down Rosedale Avenue, where I later lived, to a watering hole near the Saw Mill River. At some point an impressive copper beech grew on the estate. When I was young, kids used to congregate there, climbing and making out and smoking things they shouldn’t. But that was a long time ago.

Today Hastings has grown hipster-sophisticated, and you can get a soy latte at the train station in a café naturally called The Good Witch, which struggled a little during its first year (Covid) but is now finding its legs (or gams, as they were known in Billie Burke’s time). A great place come the holidays to find a decorative donut before taking the train to New York.

Hastings has an astounding yet amazingly sad view of the Hudson River. The water tower is a local landmark, and there are always fights over whether it is an eyesore that should be destroyed.

There is nothing like the Palisades, of course, in winter or in summer. But you can’t get away from the 26 acres of Superfund site left over from when Anaconda Wire and Cable Company closed its plant here in the 1970s, having produced high-tension copper cable for decades. Now PCBs clot the soil, and residents have been waiting for decades for a many-multi-million-dollar cleanup and revival of the waterfront.

Still there is such jaw-dropping beauty approaching the George Washington Bridge, under a silvery sky.

Oddly, or maybe understandably, the train is empty.

Masking and staying six feet apart are not enough, apparently. We will shut our own selves down.

If you can brave it, though, there are still wonders to be had in New York this crazy 2021 holiday season. Like the satin sheet on which the baby Jesus himself will undoubtedly appear at some point at Our Lady of Pompeii. Optimistic, yes?

Or a place with camel meat on the menu (from the three wise men’s caravan perhaps?)

Or some amaryllis bulbs just waiting to burst – is there anything more optimistic than that?

It’s possible to stumble upon secrets if you keep your eyes open.

The iron gate at Milligan Place on Sixth Avenue between 10th and 11th Streets is usually locked and you can barely see in. Today by some good fortune it had swung open, revealing the gracious town homes that were originally built in 1852. Patchin Place, a better known neighboring mews, housed literary greats like e.e. cummings and Theodore Dreiser. Milligan Place was built originally to shelter workers for the nearby Brevoort House Hotel but ultimately put a roof over Eugene O’Neill and other lauded types. Sneaking in now is stepping into the past. Sshhhh. If you want to rent the penthouse of one it will set you back 7,000 a month.

A better deal in the West Village offers a current obsession for me and many New Yorkers: soup dumplings.

Don’t be fooled by “dumpling,” “soup” is the important part.

You pick up a steamed, plump dough package with chopsticks, set it on a spoon, bite off the top, slurp the soup and then gulp down the pork meatball inside. Divine. Burnt tongue optional.

The sawtooth oak (Quercus acutissima) just doesn’t get the picture that it’s winter now and time to drop its leaves. No one clued it in. Or maybe it’s just stubborn. I saw an English oak today with a mask embellishing its lowest branches.

Glance at the dirty New York City sidewalk, where Mariah Carey has made her mark with something indelible. This holiday is ancient; it will survive us all.

The lines for Covid testing in the Village are two or three hours long in the brisk air. Thank you, everyone, for helping establish a safe community this Christmas. I find out almost every day about someone I know who has fallen sick. Listen as you walk down the street and it seems all you hear is “Omicron, omicron, omicron” or “Mask, mask, mask”.Some people will simply not budge from their homes out of fright.

But there is still all kinds of pleasure to be had, like in the sexy party store on West 4th Street, the window all decked out for a special visitor down the chimney..

I am finally getting to this point: if you ever have the opportunity to see a documentary called The Velvet Queen, please go. As far as I know the independent house The Film Forum has the exclusive opening, but it will soon come to an art house near you. Or come to New York! Soup dumplings! We have to keep on living.

The movie tells the story of an award-winning French wildlife photographer, Vincent Munier, who takes along a writer as they attempt to locate the elusive snow leopard in the heart of Tibet. Much of the narrative has to do with waiting patiently in blinds for animals to pass.

Poetry resides in the sunlit and shadowy peaks of the up to 15,000 feet they travel, with the reward of  viewing some ordinarily very private and human-shy creatures such as bears, hawks, yaks and yes, finally, the mesmerizing snow leopard itself. A highlight comes when the cat-searchers come upon some unexpected bear scat in a high-up cave. If that floats your boat, as it does mine, this effort will entrance you. But the trek is really not only about animals, but about patience and faith and appreciation, as well as protecting all the natural good that is the earth rather than despoil it unthinkingly.

With every purchased ticket comes an ornament, a snow leopard sewn of felt from sheep wool, handmade in Mongolia. A reminder that in this very complex and difficult time it is good to focus on what is beautiful in the moment. Like a frosted donut.

1 Comment

Filed under Jean Zimmerman

One response to “The yellow-brick road might, surprisingly,

  1. The french writer Sylvain Tesson received in 2019 a prestigious book prize (Prix Renaudot) for this magnificent and poetic story.

    ” The art of patience : Seeking the snow leopard in Tibet” by Sylvain Tesson.

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